Tuesday, 19 February 2008

Top Spin

Once upon a time a few years ago there used to be an informative program on TV discussing cars and bikes. It was called Top Gear; it was British which made it relevant (as opposed to American car reviews which are totally irrelevant outside of North America), and it was made of car and motorcycle reviews by professional drivers and racers who had an eye for practicality. I liked the program enough to even subscribe to its affiliated magazine at one stage (2001). Overall, the program has had a profound effect on the way I estimate cars.
You see, before Top Gear I would mostly follow the hype of the car magazines and assume that a good car is a car that behaves really well on the road and is a pleasure to drive. This criterion worked fine when I was a teenager dreaming about cars, but once I got my own car I realized there are far more important factors: most of all, I wanted the car to start when I switched the key, and I wanted the car to get me to where I wanted to go and get me there as planned; with my first two cars the number of times that simple request was not fulfilled was way too high. Then I realized that I wanted the car not to cost me that much; I mean, aside of the initial cost of buying the car (which in Israel is surmounted by a tax of about 100%) the running costs of car ownership are just stupidly high, and yet they’re the type of thing no one ever talks about (probably so they wouldn’t appear stupid when a colleague says he/she pays much less).
Top Gear has sorted me out in this regard by introducing me to the JD Power car surveys. These are quite unique, as far as I know, in that they measure the satisfaction of people that own a specific car model for a while, they do this in great numbers, and they measure real life issues such as satisfaction with dealership service as well as practicality and good old fashioned performance. Note what these surveys don’t do: they don’t go to organizations interested in selling you stuff to ask them what they think you should be buying; instead, the survey goes to hundreds of thousands of people like you and me that happen to own cars.
The most interesting thing about the survey’s results is that it shows exactly what I was already feeling: aside from expensive cars such as BMW’s, the cars most people are very consistently happiest with are Toyotas and Hondas. These tend not to be the flashiest cars around but the chances of them troubling you are low. Generally speaking, the placement of most manufacturers is pretty steady over the years, with Italian and French cars traditionally being at the lower end while the Japanese at the higher end. You could even notice a dip in Mazda’s results when they were purchased by Ford and a subsequent rise (albeit not enough to compensate) following their stylish recent releases. Because the JD Power results seem to make sense to the analyst in me, and because they’re helped by an excellent correlation with my own experience and with experience of virtually everyone I am familiar with, I regard the results of the JD Power surveys as the best reference for car buyers. They are an authority worth consulting with.

A few years have past and Top Gear has completely changed its shape and format. No longer informative, it is now some sort of a reality program where three guys who obviously didn’t get enough attention from their parents go about thrashing cars, usually expensive cars, around. Lately they’ve been focusing on weird projects to do with cars, such as (to quote last night’s show while bearing in mind Australia is a season behind the UK) building ridiculously exaggerated stretch limos out of small cars: one of them built a limo longer than two buses out of a Fiat Panda, while another built a limo by combining the front of an Alpha on one side to the front of a Saab on the other. You get the picture.
From a program that used to be informative, a program you could take something out of, Top Gear has become a pure entertainment program. Cheap entertainment at that.
Not that there’s anything wrong with it; even cheaper entertainment is abundant on TV, and while I’m not religious about following the program I do enjoy it as dinner background. That said, I think it’s a pity the old Top Gear is gone; I think there is room for both the informative and the silly.

What motivated me to write this post had to do with a particular item reported in last night’s episode of Top Gear. Apparently, back in 2006 our good friend Tony Blair was reported to host one of the program’s presenters at his office on Dawning Street in order to discuss ways of reducing traffic congestion. Needless to say, that discussion was highly publicized with press presence and such.
Now, what is wrong with this picture? Plenty.
One of the problems I have with religious people attempting to use their religious doctrines in order to pretend to be able to consult people is that there is absolutely no substance and no basis behind them doing so other than a long chain of wishful thinking assumptions. To use an often quoted analogy, my gardener is just as qualified to address existential questions as any rabbi or priest.
What Tony Blair was doing was committing the exact same sin. What is it that gives a Top Gear presenter, Richard Hammond in this particular case, any authority over any other member of the public when it comes to addressing traffic congestion? Nothing other than him being paid to take part in a show where he can play around with cars so expensive most of us will never even touch. Does that make him a congestion expert? Not more than you and I, in the sense that we’re all stuck in traffic from time to time. Is this anything that Tony Blair is unaware of? No, but Blaire wouldn’t mind getting some extra publicity through the limelight set on a Top Gear presenter; he wants to appear to the public as if he is doing something, and having some photographers around is one good way of achieving that. The problem is that it’s all to do with appearance and nothing to do with the actual easing of traffic congestion.

As Robin Williams said in a film we’ve watched over the weekend, TV is a dangerous tool: It can put a holocaust denier next to a historian who knows all about the holocaust and make them appear as equals. In the above case, Tony Blair was trying to gain political advantage by doing exactly that, but the main point is that we as a society allow these things to happen in the first place. Most of us actually do consider the likes of Richard Hammond to be worthy authorities for the sole reason they are TV celebrities.
Society’s inability to distinguish between a proper authority and a fake one irritates me.

No comments: